Omer and Zona Galle's
Slavery Reading List
Below is Omer and Zona Galle’s annotated, recommended reading list. Zona’s family were active participants in the Underground Railroad. We appreciate their sharing this with us. Picture at right: “At the time this picture was taken, we were on our way to a little Swiss town called Eggiwil. In this town next to the “Gemeinde Haus”, (community center), is a plaque honoring Uli Galli, who was “hanged as the leader of the peasant revolt in 1653.” He was hanged in Bern.”
Omer and Zona were active members of the Congregational Church of Austin until their return to Kansas following Omer's retirement as a Professor of Sociology at the University of Texas at Austin. We greatly appreciate their contribution below.
Suggested Readings on Race in the United States (and Elsewhere), from the Eighteenth through the Twentieth (and even the Twenty First) Centuries
Introductory Statement: How we got into the whole thing. We have, over the past several years gotten into reading more about the issue of slavery, the Underground Railroad, and the treatment of blacks in the United States both before and after the civil war. Some years back the book Cloudsplitter, by Russell Banks was recommended to us. We bought it, read it, and found it a terrific read, even spell-binding at times. Although a “fictional” account of John Brown’s life “as told by one of his sons”, it had a lot of detail about Brown, his work, and especially the 15 to 20 years before the civil war, when he was most active in the cause of abolition. Then several years later, our son, Karl gave Omer the biography of John Brown written by David S. Reynolds, called John Brown, Abolitionist: The Man Who Killed Slavery, Sparked the Civil War, and Seeded Civil Rights. As you might infer from the title, Reynolds had a particular point of view that he wished to convey about the importance of John Brown. It is a good read, especially after reading Cloudsplitter. While the Banks book plainly states it is a work of fiction, the Reynolds book is a biography. And interestingly, the two books are remarkably consistent on the “facts” of John Brown’s life and his deeds.
Son Karl gave Omer this book in the summer of 2005, when we as a family were all together in the Washington D.C. area. Karl was living there at the time, but Omer was in D.C. on a review panel at NIH, and Kristin, Brent, Rachel, Kaitlyn, and Mariah joined us all for a week-long vacation in and around the DC area. We traveled to Philadelphia one day to view the Liberty Bell, and while going through that exhibit discovered how closely the Bell was associated with the various struggles for freedom and equality for the black population in this country. We traveled on the last day of our time together to Harpers Ferry, where John Brown’s takeover of the United States Armory, and ultimate capture took place. It was a fascinating visit, and helped make sense of the scenario written about in the Reynolds’ book when Brown and his confederates took over the town.
Finally, the trip we took last summer (2007) gave the impetus to delve even more deeply into the history of slavery, abolition, the Underground Railroad, and more regarding race relations over the scope of the history of the United States.
There is a history in the Platt family of abolitionism which had been handed down orally over the years. When we spent the 1994-95 academic year in Washington, DC, (Omer was “visiting scholar” at the Population Reference Bureau), Zona did research in the Library of Congress which verified the oral history, especially when she found a book published in 1898 by Wilbur H. Siebert called The Underground Railroad from Slavery to Freedom (The Macmillan Company: 1898, and reprinted in 1968). In this book, reference is made to Zona’s great, great grandfather, Jireh Platt (1798-1870), an active abolitionist in Mendon, Illinois, who with his wife Sarah Dutton Platt (1798-1877), kept a station on the Underground Railroad on the line that went from Quincy, Illinois to Canada. ( Jireh and Sarah are shown in the tintypes at right.) Slaves crossed the Mississippi River from the slave state of Missouri into Illinois. On this route Quincy was the first station and Jireh had the second station on the edge of Mendon, Illinois. (There were many people involved, but most kept it very secret – only a few people were known—and admitted—to doing this work.) In the summer of 1995, Zona visited there for the first time and talked with two women who had done research into the Underground Railroad in Adams County. They knew “Deacon Platt” from their research and were delighted to pass on the information they had and show Zona the area.
When we were planning the three-week road trip last summer, we knew we would be going through Kansas. We also knew that some things once owned by Zona’s great grandfather, Luther Hart Platt(1835-96) (youngest son of Jireh and Sarah Platt), had been given to the Kansas State Historical Museum, in Topeka, Kansas by second cousins of hers, whose family had taken care of Luther’s widow (Martha Anginette Ferry) after Luther died. So before we left from Texas, we made contact with the Historical Museum, and asked whether we could view Luther Hart Platt’s “fiddle” since it was part of their historical artifacts. (An aside: Luther taught violin at Washburn College in Topeka, and was also known as the “fiddling preacher”. He was a circuit rider for the Congregational Church and used his fiddle as he traveled the area preaching.) The associate curator of the museum, Rebecca Martin, was very helpful and said, of course. In correspondence back and forth she told us that there are “Platt papers” in the Historical Library (the adjoining building) as well. After seeing the fiddle, we went over to the Library and were stunned to find five boxes of papers that had been donated by the family. In those boxes were copies of letters that Luther wrote to the American Missionary Association, who had assigned him to work with the freedmen of Topeka, reporting on his work—establishing a church and school to help the freedmen learn to read and write. There are also parts of a journal hand written by one of Luther’s older brothers telling of deeds and incidents that occurred back in Mendon, Illinois, that Jireh and the older brothers were involved in. We think it was Enoch Platt(1825-91) who wrote this. The other two brothers who were involved were Henry Dutton Platt(1823-1903) and Jeremiah Everts Platt(1833-99) – Luther was still a young boy at that time. Jeremiah went to Kansas Territory to promote the anti-slavery cause. He was part of the Beecher Bible and Rifle Colony in Wabaunsee County, Kansas, and taught at Kansas State Agricultural College. Well, all of this really got our attention back on the Underground Railroad and other aspects of this history.
(Four sons are pictured at right, Back: Luther & Jeremiah, Front: Henry Dutton & Enoch)
At the same time it was becoming clear to us that a steady stream of books has begun to come out on various aspects of the history of race relations, slavery, reconstruction, the death of reconstruction, etc., etc. Reviews appeared in the Sunday New York Times book review section, on Terry Gross’s “Fresh Air,” (on public radio) and other sources, which suggested a re-awakening of interest in details of this history that have been forgotten, or ignored, or not paid attention to by the general public. We have been paying attention to some of this stream, and what follows is (for us, at least) a suggested set of readings that run from the early parts of the 18th century (the early 1700’s) up to the end of the 1960s. We welcome comments, additions, suggested deletions, and whatever else you might want to contribute.
Before talking about various “sections” or “segments” on the history of race in America, let me mention one book that spans it all. It is a book by John Hope Franklin, distinguished black historian who died in the spring of 2009 (he was over 90 years old). The first edition of this book was published in 1947, called From Slavery to Freedom: a History of Negro Americans. The last edition that I know of (the eighth edition) was published in 2000 and called From Slavery to Freedom: a History of African Americans, and it has a junior author as well: Alfred A. Moss Jr. The book starts prior to the time any blacks were in the “New World,” and focuses initially on the areas of Africa from where the initial slaves were brought to the New World. The ending of the book varies, of course by edition. The first several editions were before the major civil rights activities of the 1950s and 1960s, so it didn’t even cover these events.
The book is a long one (636 pages of text, with lots of bibliographical notes after that), but given the span of the topic, it is remarkably short. And (in my opinion), it manages to cover (sometimes very tersely) pretty much all of the major events that span the history of blacks and whites in the Americas. In this sense, it places a lot of the other books that deal with a particular event, or a particular person or group of persons in this larger context. I strongly recommend the book as a good place to start.
We break the “reading list” into several sections. The first part (only a couple of books) is the “early days” of slavery in America, in the 18th century. The second section deals with the U.S. between the start of the 19th century up to the Civil War. The third section (again quite brief) deals with the time from after the Civil War through the 1920s. We end with a few books on the civil rights movement in this country, from the 1930s through the 1960s.
Part One: Slavery and Freedom in the United States in the Eighteenth Century.
There are major works on the area of the slave trade that have been published and we mention two. We have not yet read either, although we have copies of both of them. The first is a book called The Slave Trade, by Hugh Thomas, and was published in 1997. It is a large book (798 pages of texts, followed by appendices and chapter notes), appears to be reasonably well written (I’ve delved into it a bit), and quite full of data and statistics as well. Second book along the same line is Inhuman Bondage: The Rise and Fall of Slavery in the New World, by David Brion Davis, published in 2006. This second book is a bit shorter (331 pages of text, plus footnotes, etc.). I have read some (but not nearly all) of the Davis book, and it is (as near as I can tell from here) a thought provoking, and important book.
The one book both of us have read covering this period is a novel entitled Sacred Hunger, by Barry Unsworth (W.W. Norton and Company: 1992). This book was a co-winner of the Booker Prize in 1992, along with The English Patient. Unsworth takes a small detail that Charles Townsend Mather wrote in Sketches of Old Louisiana (which no longer exists). From this detail he constructs a story of a slave boat being built in England – of the family who built it and the people who sailed on it. So this book is about capturing slaves and how they were thought of and treated.
Here are excerpts from a rather long review on Amazon.com by Jeffrey Leach:
"It's an incredibly well researched, multilayered piece of historical fiction that manages to incorporate nearly every aspect of the slave trade while maintaining a level of prose that would make Charles Dickens stand up and applaud.
Sacred Hunger follows many characters throughout its 600 plus pages, from lowly sailors to venture capitalists to slaves to dozens of other major and minor characters. The overarching storyline involves one William Kemp, a wealthy English cotton merchant currently down on his luck, and his effort to reap a quick profit from the slave trade circa 1750. He commissions the building of a vessel for just such a purpose. . . . The book flip flops back and forth from the travails of the slave voyage to the adventures of William's son Erasmus, a dour young capitalist whose plans revolve around marrying the daughter of a wealthy businessman and expanding his own family's holdings once his father passes on. Erasmus's plans come to naught when the slave ship disappears somewhere in the Caribbean, leading to a series of events that take many years to unravel. It takes that long to ascertain that . . . [the] ship didn't just disappear into thin air, but was hijacked through a mutiny involving slaves, shipmates, and Matthew Paris."
Unsworth spares no effort to convey to the reader a sense of actually witnessing the slave trade up close and personal. We learn of the vile techniques used to impress hapless sailors into maritime service through the stories of unfortunate wretches such as Billy Blair and the fiddle player Michael Sullivan. The book shows us the utter brutality inflicted by Thurso [the captain of the boat] and his subordinates on both slaves and the crew. We sit in open-mouthed wonder as we witness how the captains of these ships bartered with African kings over their "cargo." We see the ravages of disease on both slavers and slaves alike. And we quickly understand how the sale of human beings degrades everyone involved, from the merchants to the government to the Africans. The author even takes time out of his busy schedule to show how the English drove a wedge between Indian tribes in their quest to acquire territory in North America. Every negative aspect of Atlantic history--the class issues, slavery, territorial ambition, unrestricted trade, greed, murder, and torture--appear in this book in intricate and often nauseating detail. Don't come into this book expecting a joyful experience. The themes in Sacred Hunger are serious business, and Unsworth treats them as such.
Another (and substantially shorter) book that focuses primarily on the 18th century is Mr. and Mrs. Prince, How an Extraordinary Eighteenth-Century Family Moved Out of Slavery and Into Legend, by Gretchen Holbrook Gerzina (Amistad—An Imprint of HarperCollins Publishers: 2008). “Here is a story that not only demonstrates the contours of slavery in New England but also unravels the most complete history of a pre-Civil War black family known to exist.” Abijah Prince lived from 1705 until 1794. His wife, Lucy Terry, lived from 1724 until 1821. This book is significant because it talks about slavery in New England before, during, and after the Revolutionary War (relatively un-discussed these days), and illustrates the difficulties there for persons of color back then. It reminds us that slavery existed throughout the United States back then, not just in the South.
Part Two: Slavery in the First Half of the Nineteenth Century and on up to The Civil War.
This period covers John Brown, along with various individual and collective struggles to ban slavery, the Underground Railroad and other aspects.
Before talking about John Brown, three books on the lives of folks living on plantations might be mentioned. One is book called The Dwelling Place, by Erskine Clarke. This book was the winner of the Bancroft Prize in history. It recounts the history of the extended white family and the slaves on a large group of interrelated plantations near Georgia’s Atlantic coast between 1805 through 1869. The principal owner of the plantation becomes a Christian at a fairly young age. He travels to the North (at Andover and Princeton’s seminaries) to train for the ministry, and becomes convinced that slavery is wrong, but cannot figure out how, exactly to deal with his own situation of owning a huge plantation, being responsible for the well-being of a large group of white relatives dependent on the plantation for their wealth and well being, while also trying to deal with a large contingent of black slaves (owned by him). The mental gymnastics that this man goes through are quite remarkable, and his “solutions” to the problem he faces are equally remarkable. It is well written, and gives a glimpse of the kinds of “moral dilemma’s deeply religious people who are dependent on this slavery system for their wealth and well-being are confronted with.
Two other books on the plantation system that may be of interest here are mentioned in a review by Ira Berlin entitled Masters of Their Universe, published in the November 29, 2004, issue of The Nation. These two books are Landon Carter’s Uneasy Kingdom: Revolution and Rebellion on a Virgina Plantion, by Rhys Isaac, and the other is Mastery, Tyranny, and Desire: Thomas Thistlewood and His Slaves in the Anglo-Jamaican World, by Trevor Burnhard. From what Berlin says, these two “histories” are quite contrasting to the picture that Clarke “paints” of his Georgia plantation and its inhabitants. It reminds us of the wide variety of complex stories that are part of this difficult period of our history.
There is another recent book neither of us has read, but which sounds like it might be worth reading as well. That book is William Wilberforce: The Life of the Great Anti-Slave Trade Campaigner, by William Hague (Harcourt, Inc.: 2007). The author appeared recently on Terry Gross’ “Fresh Air” show on NPR. Wilberforce came from a prosperous family in England, but chose a life of public service, and led the parliamentary fight for the abolition first of the slave trade (in 1806) by England, and ultimately the abolition of slavery altogether in 1833. There are, in fact, several other books on Wilberforce out there, but this is one of the more recent ones.
I need to comment on a book given to me by my son Karl called Lose These Chains, by Adam Hochschild. It is an incredibly well-written book (from a sociological point of view) of how the successful “movement” to ban the slave trade in the early part of the 19th century. It is filled with a very clear narrative of how a small group of Quakers and other “abolitionists” managed to steer the Parliament of the Great Britain to vote decisively to ban the slave trade at a time when it was still immensely profitable to the many folks in Great Britain. I strongly recommend this book.
While there are number of books on the Underground Railroad (including the one mentioned earlier in the introduction to this list) the one we would recommend is Bound for Canaan, The Underground Railroad and the War for the Soul of America, by Fergus M. Bordewich (Amistad—An Imprint of HarperCollins Publishers, 2005). This book “tells the stories of men and women like David Ruggles, who invented the black underground in New York City; bold Quakers like Isaac Hopper and Levi Coffin, who risked their lives to build the Underground Railroad; and the inimitable Harriet Tubman. Interweaving thrilling personal stories with the politics of slavery and abolition, Bound for Canaan shows how the Underground Railroad gave birth to this country’s first racially integrated, religiously inspired movement for social change.”
Mention should now be made of the books we cited in the introduction about John Brown. Although there may still be some debate about the significance of Brown in the struggle for abolition, the books mentioned give major insights (we feel) into the attitudes and issues involved throughout the United States in the first half of the 19th century regarding the abolition movement. They are especially significant for us because of our ties to Kansas, where Brown and his sons spent some time. Indeed, in the Platt Papers from the Kansas State Historical Library, mention is made of a group of men—including the Platt brothers—trying to cross over into Kansas in the 1850s (“free-staters”) being held up for a time by some pro-slavery forces, and then waiting for the appearance of another group, to help them enter the state. This was the time that Brown and his sons were also operating in Kansas. So here are the books:
First, there is Cloud Splitter, by Russell Banks (Harper Collins, 1998). This book, as we mentioned above, was the one that started our longer quest for knowledge and information about slavery, abolition, and race-relations in this country. It is an incredible “reading experience.” Banks is a gifted writer (Omer has read several more of his novels, but this one, he feels, is in a class by itself). It paints an unforgettable picture of John Brown and his seemingly inevitable road to Harpers Ferry. Interestingly enough, it ends with relatively little information about the Harpers Ferry raid and nothing about its aftermath.
The second book, John Brown, Abolitionist: The Man Who Killed Slavery, Sparked the Civil War, and Seeded Civil Rights, by David S. Reynolds (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2005). Reynolds has a specific point of view, and one can argue with it, (and Omer, who has read this one, doesn’t always agree with the points he tries to make), but it is also quite well written, and worth the read. In the book, Reynolds tries to “justify” the deaths Brown was responsible for in Kansas, and also make the point that Brown was—in ways more deeply felt than many of the abolitionists—a true “brother” to the slaves, and considered them equals (many of the abolitionists wanted the slaves freed, but then sent back to Africa, and considered them inferior to whites). He also makes a compelling case that Brown’s behavior after his capture at Harpers Ferry up to the time of his hanging was instrumental in setting the nation on the path to the civil war. Both of these books on Brown are well worth the reading.
A third book – another biography that appeared recently (last several years) is called Patriotic Treason: John Brown and the Soul of America, by Evan Carlton (on the faculty at the University of Texas) and published in 2006. Zona has read this one, and recommends it; I have not yet gotten to it.
More briefly, here are a number of other books for this period of time:
Another well known name from Underground Railroad lore is that of Harriet Tubman, and there is a recent book on her called Harriet Tubman, Imagining a Life, by Beverly Lowry, (Doubleday, 2007). This is a biography that has been well researched and very well written and speaks to the difficulties of getting people out of the South. There is also much about Tubman’s continuing effort to raise money in order to make those trips and the many well-known names of the people who helped.
Prison Life and Reflections; or, A Narrative of the Arrest, Trial, Conviction, Imprisonment, Treatment, Observations, Reflections, and Deliverance of Work, Burr, and Thompson, by George Thompson, one of the prisoners, Hartford, 1850. An original copy is in the U.T. Library which Zona began reading. Omer then found a Michigan Historical Reprint which we have. Zona was interested in this because these men are talked about in the papers we have from the Platt family and were part of the Mission School in Quincy which the Platt brothers attended. They were all in Illinois working at freeing slaves at the same time. These three men crossed the river into Missouri for this purpose and were captured and imprisoned. It is written as a journal and is very repetitive, but does give a feel for prison life and the issues at that time. These three men felt that they were doing the calling of God and felt that good came out of there experiences, in the form of “saving” some of their fellow prisoners. They were caught in July, 1841. Alanson Work was a prisoner for 3 ½ years, James Burr for 4 ½ years, and George Thompson for just under 5 years.
Escape on the Pearl: The Heroic Bid for Freedom on the Underground Railroad, by Mary Kay Ricks (William Morrow, An Imprint of HarperCollins Publishers, 2007). “On the evening of April 15, 1848, seventy-seven slaves attempted one of history’s most audacious escapes—and put in motion a furiously fought battle over slavery in America that would consume Congress, the streets of the capital, and the White House itself.” These were “fortunate” house slaves from the wealthy and high placed of D.C. who shocked the whites by risking their “good life” to try for freedom. They were caught and legal battles ensued. Much of the story centers around Emily Edmundson (age 13) and her sister, Mary Edmundson (age 15) and the rest of the Edmundson family. The slaves were captured and returned to D.C. and put in a slave pen (which we understand has now been made an historical site). Henry Ward Beecher finally got involved with the abolition movement when it became apparent that the two attractive and educated girls were to be sold south as sex slaves -- for a lot of money. Harriet Beecher Stowe got involved and arranged for them to have scholarships to attend Oberlin College.
A Slave No More, Two Men Who Escaped to Freedom, Including Their Own Narratives of Emancipation, by David W. Blight, Harcourt, Inc., 2007. “John Washington, a twenty-four-year-old urban slave in Fredericksburg, Virginia, escaped across the Rappahannock River to Union army lines in April 1862 by ingenuity, skillful deception, and courage. Through the chaos of war he found his way to a tenuous freedom in Washington, D.C. Wallace Turnage, a seventeen-year-old slave born in North Carolina, ran away four times from an Alabama cotton plantation before he fled a Mobile slave jail on his fifth and final escape. In a harrowing and dramatic journey, he made his way on foot through swamps and snake-infested rivers to the safety of the Union navy in Mobile Bay in August 1864.” “Working from an unusual abundance of genealogical material, historian David W. Blight has reconstructed Turnage’s and Washington’s childhoods as sons of white slaveholders, their service as cooks and camp hands during the Civil War, and their climb to black working-class stability in the North, where they reunited their families.”
We also need to mention Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, by Harriet Jacobs (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988). Originally published in 1861, it is, apparently, one of the very few slave narratives written by a woman. There were many more written by escaped male slaves. As such it provides a quite different perspective on slavery from the point of few of the female slave.
A couple of other biographies might be mentioned here. One that Zona has recently read is The Most Famous Man in America: The Biography of Henry Ward Beecher, by Debby Applegate (Doubleday, 2006. A paperback version has been published by Three Leaves Press). One of the reviewer’s comments on this book is that it “is also a “beautifully written history of nineteenth century America.” Beecher is, of course the person after whom the Beecher Bible and Rifle Church in Wabaunsee, Kansas was named. A second biography is The Life of Harriet Beecher Stow, written by her son, Charles Edward Stowe (Riverside Press, 1889). This second book is quite interesting, but a bit hard to find. Zona picked it up some years back at a rare book sale. It has interesting stuff in it, including a wonderful pun.
Mentioning Harriet Beecher Stow brings up Uncle Tom’s Cabin, the book she wrote that made her famous. Some (including Abe Lincoln) even argue that it was crucial in leading to the Civil War. In more recent times, it fell into “disrepute,” especially after James Baldwin called it “worthless and dehumanizing” in 1955. In 2007, a new, “annotated” version of the book was published (New York: W. W. Norton, 2007). This book, edited and annotated by Henry Louis Gates and Hollis Robbins, is quite effective in re-establishing the importance and effectiveness of the original text. They add “hundreds of annotations [in the margins] illuminating life in the South during nineteenth-century slavery, the abolitionist movement and the influential role played by devout Christians, the life story of Harriet Beecher Stowe, and Underground Railroad, Stowe’s literary motives, her writing methods, and the novels wide-ranging impact on the American public” (this a quote from the book’s jacket). Zona highly recommends this book.
Finally, there is a new book we got just around Christmas time last year (2008) called The Underground Railroad Ran Through My House!, by Ruth Deeters. This book is specifically about the “branch” of the Underground Railroad that Zona’s great great Grandfather was involved in. There is a chapter in that book on the Platt family written by Ruth primarily on information provided to her by Zona from her work. This book is privately published, but it is also for sale on Amazon.com. It you can’t find it there, you may contact us to get the addresses necessary to get the book.
The books mentioned up to this point (save the ones neither of has read) we found to be very well written and fascinating, except Prison Life and Reflections which is not well written, but was fascinating to us for our own reasons.
Part Three: Reconstruction, and other Issues of Race, from 1870 Through the 1920s.
Many of us (ourselves included) know very little of race relations in this country between the end of the civil war and the civil rights movement, which most of us think started with sit-in movements in North Carolina. This is an area where there are also increasing numbers of publications. We mention four of them, although we have only read one of these. The others are relatively new, and have been mentioned (again) in recent book reviews, and on such places as “Bill Moyers’ Journal” on PBS. We mention these four because we have only recently become curious about this period, but we know that there are other publications dealing with various other aspects of this period, such as various race-riots (in Tulsa, East St. Louis, etc.) and other activities.
The first book, chronologically, is The Day Freedom Died: The Colfax Massacre, the Supreme Court, and the Betrayal of Reconstruction, by Charles Lane (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2008). Here are a few comments on the book from a web site called Powell Books:
Following the Civil War, Colfax, Louisiana, was a town, like many, where African Americans and whites mingled uneasily. But on April 13, 1873, a small army of white ex–Confederate soldiers, enraged after attempts by freedmen to assert their new rights, killed more than sixty African Americans who had occupied a courthouse. With skill and tenacity, The Washington Post’s Charles Lane transforms this nearly forgotten incident into a riveting historical saga.
Seeking justice for the slain, one brave U.S. attorney, James Beckwith, risked his life and career to investigate and punish the perpetrators—but they all went free. What followed was a series of courtroom dramas that culminated at the Supreme Court, where the justices’ verdict compromised the victories of the Civil War and left Southern blacks at the mercy of violent whites for generations. The Day Freedom Died is an electrifying piece of historical detective work that captures a gallery of characters from presidents to townspeople, and re-creates the bloody days of Reconstruction, when the often brutal struggle for equality moved from the battlefield into communities across the nation.
Another book in the same vein is On the Laps of Gods: The Red Summer of 1919 and the Struggle for Justice That Remade a Nation, by Robert Whitaker (Crown Publishers, 2008). This is the story of another violent outbreak in 1919, in Arkansas. Apparently, the trouble began at a church where black sharecroppers were meeting to discuss unionizing. A shootout left one white man dead. The area soon found itself overrun with vigilante groups and outside posses roaming the woods and gunning down blacks. Federal troops were sent in from Little Rock to quell the violence, and eventually more than 300 black suspects were jailed, 12 of whom would be convicted of murder—in trials lasting as little as an hour—and sentenced to die in the electric chair. This takes up the first half of the book; the second half tells the story of Scipio Africanus Jones, one of “the great forgotten hero’s of American history” (according to Jay Jennings, who reviewed the book for the New York Times on June 22, 2008). Born a slave whose father was very likely his mother’s owner, Jones became the most prominent black lawyer in Little Rock. Quoting from Jennings, he says that “he fought all the way to the United States Supreme Court, where his formidable skills helped win a groundbreaking decision, Moore v. Dempsey, that set the stage for his clients’ eventual release.”
These first two books deal with race relations after the civil war in the South. The next book deals with race in the North. Arc of Justice: A Saga of Race, Civil Rights, and Murder in the Jazz Age, by Kevin Boyle (Henry Holt, 2004). tells the story of Ossian Sweet, a black man who was born in the deep south (Alabama, I believe—I don’t have our copy with me, because it is loaned out), travels north to Wilberforce College in Ohio (a wonderfully ironic story of the founding of the college is included in this book), and thence to medical school at Howard University in Washington, D.C. Sweet becomes a doctor, and moves to Detroit. After a number of successful years as a doctor, he and his wife purchase a house in a previously all-white neighborhood in the middle of the 1920s. They move in, and are faced with growing unrest in the neighborhood, which leads to shots being fired, a white man being killed, and Ossian Sweet, his wife, and several friends being arrested for murder. Eventually, Clarence Darrow becomes one of his lawyers, and he eventually wins an acquittal of Sweet and the others. Despite the more or less happy ending of the case, Sweet’s life was ruined. We both found this to be a very powerful book.
Finally, we add another book we have not read, but have read books reviews of, and seen the author on the “Bill Moyers Journal” program recently. It is Slavery by another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II, by Douglas A. Blackmon (Doubleday, 2008). Quoting from Janet Maslin’s review in the New York Times of April 10, 2008, Blackmon “describes free men and women forced into industrial servitude, bound by chains, faced with subhuman living conditions and subject to physical torture. That plight was horrific, but until 1951, it was not outside the law. All it took was anything remotely resembling a crime.” “Once found guilty of such crimes (such as gambling, or selling cotton after sunset, or changing employers without permission) they could be subjected to steep fines, and if unable to pay them, they could be imprisoned. Once imprisoned, they could be “leased” to private business.” And, as Maslin notes in her review, “arrest rates and the labor needs of local businesses could conveniently be made to dovetail.”
I gather, from my reading of the reviews, that much of the reporting in this book covers events before 1930, but the era he speaks of covers part of the period of time covered in our last sector of readings, so this is why we list it last in the section.
Part Four: Race, and Civil Rights Activity from 1930 to the 1960s and beyond.
It was mentioned earlier that the last part of our “reading list” covers the civil rights movement from 1930 to the 1960s and beyond. Some may question starting the civil right “era” as early as the 1930s, but we do so because of a book written by a friend of ours, John Egerton called Speak Now Against the Day: The Generation Before the Civil Rights Movement in the South (Alfred A. Knopf, 2004). In this book, Egerton makes a case that there was a good deal of activity in the in the South during the period preceding the Brown v. Board of Education by whites and blacks of good intentions to try to ease the severity of racial discrimination there, which, had they been more successful might have eased the violence visited on of the movement later on. As Studs Terkel says on the book jacket, “John Egerton has uncovered a buried treasure, a hidden history of the South’s progressive resistance in the thirties and forties and early fifties. . . . [he] throws a much-needed light on a biracial Gideon’s army of heroic Southerners who fought the good fight years before the civil rights movement flowered.”
The centerpiece of the story of the civil rights era is, of course, Taylor Branch’s epic trilogy of (as the subtitle on each book notes) America in the King Years. They are Parting the Waters, Pillar of Fire, and At Canaan’s Edge. They are, as several reviewers mention, “magisterial” in the telling of the tale. They are the definitive description of those turbulent years. Enough said.
There are, however, several other books that deserve note, at least from our point of view. One of them is The Children, by David Halberstam (Random House, 1998). Halberstam was a young reporter at the Nashville Tennessean in the late 1950s and early 1960s, when James Lawson was teaching nonviolent protest tactics and strategies to John Lewis, Diane Nash, James Bevel, and others—many of them the original founders of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee. They were all students at either Fisk, or American Baptist Theological Seminary, or Tennessee State University, or other schools in Nashville, and Lawson was attending seminary at Vanderbilt University. This small cadre of young, idealistic students formed the core of the “foot soldiers” that were engaged in a lot of the early skirmishes of the civil rights movement. They integrated lunch counters in Nashville, participated in the Freedom Rides (and served time in Parchman—the state penitentiary of Mississippi as a result) and had their heads beaten on any number of times during the struggles. In any case, Halberstam’s book covers these early days of this group of “children” from Nashville as they attack public discrimination throughout the South and the rest of the nation. Importantly, he writes the book many years later and thus is able to (and does) follow up on what these “children” are doing now. Some are doing well, some not so well, and some clearly suffered what we would now call “Post-Traumatic Stress Disorders” from the years in the movement. It is a really powerful, moving book.
Finally, couple of biographies of this era. One is Walking With the Wind: A Memoir of the Movement, by John Lewis with Michael D’Orso (Simon and Schuster, 1998). John Lewis is now a congressman from Georgia, but is one of the true heroes of the civil rights era. His story is powerful and moving, and should be read by everyone. The second one is Bayard Rustin: The Troubles I’ve Seen, by Jervis Anderson (Harper Collins, 1997). Rustin, is known by most folks as the architect of the 1963 March on Washington, where King gave his “I Have a Dream” speech. At that time Rustin was a top aide to A. Philip Randolf, but Rustin was the guy who organized all the details of that successful march. He was also the person who got Martin Luther King Jr. together with persons from the FOR (Fellowship of Reconciliation) during the early days of the Montgomery Bus Boycott who then taught King the basic fundamentals of non violent protest (this from Taylor Branch’s Parting the Waters – the first book of the trilogy on King and the Civil Rights Movement of the 50s and 60s). On a more personal note, Rustin is someone who Zona knew since she was a young girl in Kansas and her mother was taking Rustin around to small, white rural Mennonite churches in the area to talk about peace and nonviolent resistance. She remembers Rustin’s beautiful tenor voice as he would sing both early “English” folk songs and Negro Spirituals (unaccompanied) in those churches. A remarkable man, one of the almost unknown and really unsung heroes of the civil rights era.
I should add that in the past several months, we have “gotten connected” with Rustin and his “milieu” again. There is a history professor at a college in Pennsylvania who is working on another biography of Rustin based on his letters, and he found a letter than Zona had written to Bayard when she was around 10 years of age, and Bayard had responded. That, in turn, led us to be contacted by Walter Naegle (Bayard’s “partner” in his later years –Bayard was homosexual), who has sent us several CDs of Bayard singing.
Finally, let me mention several books that I haven’t added to this “reading list” because I have discovered them in the last several months.
American Uprising: The Untold Story of America’s Largest Slave Revolt, by Daniel Rasmussen, is a publication based on Rasmussen’s “senior honor’s thesis” from Harvard, which relates an uprising of slaves in Louisiana in 1811 just outside of New Orleans. I have read this, and it still reads like an undergraduate’s senior honor’s thesis, but the most important point (to me at least) is that it reemphasizes the importance of “raising sugar cane” as one of the most oppressive and brutal “systems” that encouraged the slave trade early on. This is also emphasized in Sacred Hunger and Lose These Chains, among other books. It is a bit short, truncated, and short on details of the “uprising,” but an “okay” read.
1861: The Civil War Awakening, by Adam Goodheart. This is a book about the first year of the Civil War, and has numerous “small stories” about various people who got involved almost accidentally in the War and made a big difference. We have a copy of this book, which Zona is currently reading. I bought it because of an excerpt from the book published in the NYTimes Sunday Magazine about a month ago. It sounds like a really interesting book.
The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration, by Isabel Wilkerson. This is a recounting of the migration of Blacks out of the South to the North and the West in the 20th Century. Wilkerson has won a Pulitzer Prize for her writing in the NYTimes, so it reads very well. I am reading this one, along with another book, so I am not making wonderful progress on it, but it is indeed very well written.
Mothers of Invention: Women of the Slaveholding South in the American Civil War, by Drew Gilpen Faust (who is currently President of Harvard University). I am currently reading this book as well, and it is fascinating.
The Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War, by Drew Gilpen Faust, another book about the Civil War, this one focusing on the great losses incurred by both sides in this war.
Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory, by David Blight (who also wrote A Slave No More (see page 7 of this list). This is a book reflecting on the different ways in which the Civil War has been “remembered” over the years since the war – a kind of “sociology of knowledge” kind of essay.
The Long Shadow of the Civil War, by Victoria Bynum, which tells the story of various groups in the South who resisted the secession movement, and wanted the states to remain in “Union,” and the various guerilla battles that took place because of that.
That’s all for now.